Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Cosmic Serpent Exposed

Serpent Symbolism, Part II
Alice C. Linsley

(For Serpent Symbolism, Part I go here.)


Shamans of the Amazon drink or inhale the hallucinogenic ayahuasca, the principal ingredient of which is a serpent shaped vine. The effects of the ayahuasca drink appear in thirty to forty minutes and last approximately four hours. While under the influence of ayahuasca, they see serpents who teach them the medicinal and sorcery uses of other plants. The shaman is said to be able to see galaxies and planets, distant relatives, lost objects, the identity of an unfaithful spouse’s lover, the cause of a patient’s sickness and travel through time and space.

Aya and huasca are Quechua words meaning “soul” and “vine”. In Spanish the vine is called “soga de alma” – vine of the soul and also "soga de muerto" - vine of the dead. Ayahuasca is a mixture of 2 or 3 plant ingredients, sometimes more. The hallucinogenic ingredient is tetrahydroharmine (DMT), which when ingested is neutralized by the oxidizing action of peripheral monoamine oxidase-A (MAO-A), an enzyme in the lining of the stomach. Shamans circumvent the MAO inhibitor by inhaling or smoking the plant or by mixing the DMT with an MAO inhibitor that prevents the breakdown of DMT in the digestive tract.

According to the shamans, the cosmic serpent taught their ancestors which plants to mix to overcome the body’s natural protection. Combining ingredients allows the DMT in the ayahuasca to produce its hallucinogenic effect when orally ingested. The vine also contains harmaline which can cause vomiting and diarrhea, but it doesn’t have an effect on shamans who develop a tolerance to its emetic and purgative effects over time. However, they do not develop a tolerance for ayahuasca’s hallucinogenic effects.

In his book The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge (1999), Jeremy Narby tells of his fieldwork with the Ashaninca and Quirishari of the Peruvian Amazon. Through use of the hallucinogen ayahuasca, derived from a serpent shaped vine (shown on left), Narby encountered the metaphysical reality presented in Genesis 3: the beguiling cosmic serpent who "was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say...?"

Narby explains, “I began my investigation with the enigma of ‘plant communication.’ I went on to accept the idea that hallucinations could be the source of verifiable information. And I ended up with a hypothesis suggesting that a human mind can communicate in defocalized consciousness with the global network of DNA-based life. All this contradicts principles of Western knowledge.

Nevertheless, my hypothesis is testable. A test would consist of seeing whether institutionally respected biologists could find biomolecular information in the hallucinatory world of ayahuasqueros… My hypothesis suggests that what scientists call DNA corresponds to the animate essences that shamans say communicate with them and animate all life forms. Modern biology, however, is founded on the notion that nature is not animated by an intelligence and therefore cannot communicate.” (p. 132)

My hypothesis is based on the idea that DNA in particular and nature in general are minded. (p. 145)

According to my hypothesis, shamans take their consciousness down to the molecular level and gain access to bimolecular information. But what actually goes on in the brain/mind of an ayhuasquero when this occurs? What is the nature of a shaman's communication with the animate essences of nature? The clear answer is that more research is needed in consciousness, shamanism, molecular biology, and their interrelatedness. (p. 160)

Narby concludes: “All things considered, wisdom requires not only the investigation of many things, but contemplation of the mystery.”

To me the most interesting part is Chapter 6. Here we read:

I was sitting in the main reading room, surrounded by students, and browsing over Claude Levi-Strauss's latest book, when I jumped. I had just read the following passage: "In Aztec, the word coatl means both 'serpent' and 'twin.' The name Quetzalcoatl can thus be interpreted either as 'Plumed serpent" or "Magnificent twin.'" A twin serpent, of cosmic origin, symbolizing the sacred energy of life among the Aztecs?

It was the middle of the afternoon. I needed to do some thinking. I left the library and started driving home. On the road back, I could not stop thinking about what I had just read. Staring out of the window, I wondered what all these twin beings in the creation myths of indigenous people could possibly mean.When I arrived home, I went for a walk in the woods to clarify my thoughts. I started recapitulating from the beginning: I was trying to keep one eye on DNA and the other on shamanism to discover the common ground between the two. I reviewed the correspondences that I had found so far. Then I walked in silence, because I was struck. Ruminating over this mental block I recalled Carlos Perez Shuma's words: "Look at the FORM."

That morning, at the library, I had looked up DNA in several encyclopedias and had noted in passing that the shape of the double helix was most often described as a ladder, or a twisted rope ladder, or a spiral staircase. I was during the following split second, asking myself whether there were any ladders in shamanism, that the revelation occurred: "THE LADDERS! The shamans' ladders, 'symbols of the profession' according to Metraux, present in shamanic themes around the world according to Eliade!"

I rushed back to my office and plunged into Mircea Eliade's book Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstasy and discovered that there were "countless examples' of shamanic ladders on all five continents, here a "spiral ladder," there a "stairway" or "braided ropes." In Australia, Tibet, Ancient Egypt, Africa, North and South America, "the symbolism of the rope, like that of the ladder, necessarily implies communication between sky and earth. It is by means of a rope or a ladder (as, too, by a vine, a bridge, a chain of arrows, etc.) that the gods descended to earth and men go up to the sky." Eliade even cites an example from the Old Testament, where Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching up to heaven, "with the angels of God ascending and descending on it." According to Eliade, the shamanic ladder is the earliest version of the idea of an axis of the world, which connects the different levels of the cosmos, and is found in numerous creation myths in the form of a tree. (pp. 62 - 63)

I was staggered. It seemed that no one had noticed the possible links between the "myths" of "primitive peoples" and molecular biology. No one had seen that the double helix had symbolized the life principle for thousands of years around the world. On the contrary, everything was upside down. It was said that the hallucinations could in no way constitute a source of knowledge, that Indians had found their useful molecules by chance experimentation, and that their "myths" were precisely myths, bearing no relationship to the real knowledge discovered in laboratories. (p. 71)


Eliade and others have studied shamanic techniques of ecstasy among primitive peoples. (See also I.M. Lewis’ Ecstatic Religion, 1971.) Narby argues that shamans receive information from DNA in the form of visions. His conclusion is that nature is speaking. The illogic of this view never seems to occur to him. If this is nature speaking, then why must the shaman neutralize the natural enzyme MAO-A in order to gain knowledge? This is contrary to the biblical understanding in which knowledge and wisdom are not gained by a self-induced ecstatic state.

Consider the staretz, a spiritual adviser to whom priests, monks and laymen turn for spiritual wisdom and guidance. These men and women do not seek to steal knowledge by trances. Instead by constant prayer, communion with God in Christ, and study of Scripture, they gradually and steadily grow in holiness. They become, not the mouthpieces of serpents, but of angels.

(To read about the difference between priests and shamans, go here.)


Patrick Adams said...

I was quite shocked when I got to your site and saw the cover of "The Cosmic Serpent" we had just been dicussing after liturgy. I think you covered the book well in your review. I went back to your earlier work on serpent symbolism and the Hebrew's connection of the serpent with forbidden knowledge. It reminded me again of Christ's words that He is "the gate" and that anyone who enters by another way "is a thief and a robber". It seems that THE serpent (Satan) uses, among other things, hallucinogenic drugs to "open the gate" of our minds in order to gain illicit access and impart forbidden knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Dear Alice,

This is off topic, but I have a couple of requests...

As you continue to write, your blog may need a topical index to help us find articles of interest.

Also, have you researched and written on the Abramic covenant and the circumcision? Do you see this covenant as a kind of redemption, restoration of God's holiness and reign in central aspects of human life (particularly sexuality and identity, in the symbolic act of cutting off excess flesh) lost in Fall. Hence the field trip to Sodom in the next chapter?

Thank you for sharing your extensive and fascinating research with us.


Alice C. Linsley said...

Patrick, I work quickly! : )

Father thinks our proposed study of Daniel is a good idea. He and Jeanette will cover how Daniel is used in the liturgy. Bob will present on the Kingdon of God in Daniel. I'll handle number symbolism, Nanny will cover Christ in Daniel, and you, our resident artist and art historian, will cover iconography related to Daniel. How cool is that!

Alice C. Linsley said...

Georgia, Thanks for the great suggestion. I'll put together an Index of Topics and post a link in the sidebar. I also need to go back and link related essays.

There are several topics I'd like to cover in the months ahead. One is the relationship of the Afro-Asiatic mountain and sun symbolism to the horned altar and another addresses circumcision.

Circumcision is a blood ritual with at least 2 origin stories in the Bible. In Genesis, cirumcision is said to begin with Abraham who circumcised his sons. In Exodus, it is Zipporah, Moses' Midianite wife who does the circumcision. The stories are related because Midian was one of Abraham's son by Keturah. But I'll save the details for the up-coming essays.

Anonymous said...

It's ironic that I was reading just yesterday about the Afro-Brazilian syncretic religion Santo Daime that uses this drug to go into trances that last all through the night. This was very informative.

I would tend to agree with the idea that trances may be the "forbidden knowledge" of Genesis. There seems to be a take-over of subjectivity that can be quite dangerous and demonic that takes place in these rituals. However, how would you then explain the speaking in tongues that occured at Pentecost? I am not one to advocate the speaking in tongues in our current day and age, but it is still something I ponder at times.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Bienvenido a Just Genesis, Senor Vasquez.

The Apostles were in Jerusalem for the 2 day feast of Pentecost. Pentecost was the Jewish harvest festival at which the first fruits were offered to the Lord. The Apostles spoke in actual languages that the gathered pilgrims understood. This marks the dawn of the Kingdom of God.

In Genesis 10 we are told that all the world spoke one language. This describes the Afro-Asiatic Dominion that extended from the Atlantic coast of modern Nigeria to the Indus River Valley. That vast dominion was ruled by chiefs who were related by blood and marriage. What happened at Pentecost speaks of the new eternal Dominion of Jesus Christ, Risen Lord.

St. Paul spoke in tongues, but regarded it as one of the least of the spiritual gifts since it did not always build up the Body of Christ.

Anonymous said...

Hypnosis is also an act relinquishing control the conscious mind - as much as a drug or trance, and makes a person vulnerable to encroachment infestation of evil spirits. I am very much against hypnosis for Christians.

Speaking in tongues, however, is under the control of the speaker and is recommended by St Paul as a means of edification and though it has become a matter of dispute in the Church, speaking in tongues is not dangerous except if it becomes a matter of competition or pride or is not interpreted purely and truly by the Holy Spirit but in the flesh.

Though Paul said he spoke in tongues 'more than' others, he would not have been boasting, because he boasted only in Christ and the Cross.

Other circumstances where the conscious mind and will are relinquished such as anesthesia for surgery and going to sleep at night are serious instances where evil might encroach as well and are occasions for taking serious measures for protecting oneself and asking for the spiritual support and covering of others' prayers. 'Commending' ourselves into God's care and protection is a wise precaution.

Christ's words on the Cross, 'Into Thy Hands, I commend my spirit' are a powerful and appropriate prayer.


Alice C. Linsley said...

'Commending' ourselves into God's care and protection is a wise precaution.

Christ's words on the Cross, 'Into Thy Hands, I commend my spirit' are a powerful and appropriate prayer."

Absolutely! And making the sign of the cross. Fr. Rick Lobs has an interesting and informative piece on this here:

In my comment posted there I write: "If facing East, the right to left movement represents moving from South to North. East and North are associated with God and the Logos. This is typical of the Eastern Church's belief in theosis or spiritual ascent.

If facing East, moving from left to right would represent God coming to earth (Incarnation). Also South represents the flesh, marriage and fertility."

Mike L said...


I think you've hit upon the logical fallacy in Narby, but I'm not at all sure that shamanistic trances just are the forbidden "knowledge" of Genesis. It seems much more likely to me that the Fall resulted from the same desire for spiritual autonomy that causes the prelest evident in shamanism.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the comments. I suppose my only caveat is that I wouldn't want to think that communion with God is always a "rational" process and there is not place for ecstasy in these phenomena. (Not that I have ever experienced it.) In your own tradition, you have the saints beholding the uncreated light, and in ours we have the saints going into what would appear to be some sort of trance state in front of the Tabernacle, levitations, and other such things. True, these are extraordinary events that one should never aspire to. But I would still say that they are far from demonic. God on many occasions doesn't speak "rationally", if we mean this to be according to purely human reason.

That being said, since I grew up in a Catholic charismatic family, I have come to conclude that people speaking in tongues in the prayer meetings I was dragged to as a child was a bunch of hooey. I think the time for those charisms has passed, and to try to seek them or re-enact them now is a waste of time, or even as you insinuate, dangerous.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Mike, It seems to me that the "fall" was the result of stealing or taking what is not our's to take (what is forbidden). Instead we are to receive God's gifts with thanksgiving.

Arturo, indeed we can't reach God through our reason or knowledge. In the West we miss so much of the meaning in Genesis because we take a rational or empirical approach. So we miss symbol, sign, metaphor, pattern, images, etc. that Afro-Asiatic peoples would have seen readily. This site is dedicated to trying to recover that meaning.

Thomas Aquinas, doubtless the greatest intellect of the Latin Church, moved the West far in the direction of rationalism. HIs masterpiece, the Summa Theologiae, was left unfinished. It appears that he had a mystical experience 4months before his death during Mass. Thereafter he wrote nothing more. His explanation for this was "All that I have written seems to me like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me."

Here is the key: what has been revealed during the Mass, pure gift, freely given to all who receive, but hidden from those who would steal.

Agnikan said...


I agree that avarice for knowledge not meant for oneself can be dangerous, but isn't it often true that shamans are not self-chosen, but feel themselves chosen, or called, to their particular life, often via a life-transforming illness or non-self-sough spiritual initiation?

Alice C. Linsley said...

Dharmashaiva, You are correct. My friend, William Sauts, chief of the Umani Lenape is also a shaman. He was selected by the ranking women because he shows the "signs" associated with shamanism in that tribe.

Shamans and priests are called forth to serve the community. One doesn't become either by self-appointment. Shamans and priests serve similar functions in their societies, they address blood guilt, anxiety and division and within the community. But they represent different worldviews. To read more about this go here:

Anonymous said...

"I agree that avarice for knowledge not meant for oneself can be dangerous, but isn't it often true that shamans are not self-chosen, but feel themselves chosen..."

Makes me think of the Mexican curandero, who oftentimes doesn't seek the power of healing, but it it passed onto him because he has the "don" or the gift of doing it. Most of the time they are just devout Catholics who are good with herbs, and most use Catholic prayers in their rituals. Then again, most of them don't go into trances. I have heard that many simply wished they could live ordinary lives, but have this office thrusted upon them anyway. This is the closest thing that we have to shamans around these parts.

Anonymous said...

They become, not the mouthpieces of serpents, but of angels.

Angels form a significant part of mestizo shamanism. Former Peruvian shaman Pablo Amaringo's next book of paintings will apparently detail his angelic encounters (view some here). Of course, serpents also play their part. I imagine the same "mixture" is true of the syncretic ayahuasca religions like Santo Daime. These combination seem natural given the intermingling of indigenous healing traditions with invading Christianity.

It should be stressed that shamans using ayahuasca aren't impotent mouthpieces for snake spirits - such an image seems like a hangover from colonial religious narrow-mindedness. Shamans are well aware that the areas they're dealing with are ambiguous and dangerous; hence the rigorous training. Just as we wouldn't just fire anyone, without training, into space, people negotiating with the spirit world on behalf of the community should be aware of its dangers and train accordingly. But, just as I wouldn't believe what someone told me about the moon if they'd never been there, I'm more inclined to pay heed to shamanic reports of spiritual matters than an entirely sober priesthood!

It seems to me that genuine communication with spirit has become more and more problematic as societies have grown in size. Actual experience (via plants or otherwise) has become demonized or has disappeared, replaced with linguistic dogma.

As to the "fallacy" of the idea that plant hallucinogens facilitate communication from Nature, I can't see a fallacy myself. Saying it's not Nature speaking because you have to neutralize a bodily enzyme is like saying you can't hear what's being said on the other side of a door that you can't take the time to unlock and open. Besides, how does the argument apply to mushrooms, which need no facilitation?

Alice C. Linsley said...

Gyrus, thanks for your interesting and informative comment. You are quite right that shamans have a good appreciation of the dangers involved in their work with spirits and therefore require training. I agree with you also that empiricism has caused western people to lose sight of the reality of all things being one and the implications of this.

The history of Christian missionaries to tribal peoples involves the tragedy of failing to recognize the value of shamanism. The shaman and the priest play similar roles in their societies, but these offices also reflect very different worldviews. I believe that there is only one Reality and it is centered in the pleromic blood of Jesus Christ, testified to by the one Spirit that never lies.

Cathleen said...

I am a deeply spiritual Catholic and I believe that the book was brilliant. You betray cultural bias when you refer to those of the Amazon "stealing" knowledge. It has been useful and it has been given as a gift. Also, don't you realize the trance-like properties of deep prayer?

Alice C. Linsley said...

It is one thing to be "spiritual" and an entirely different thing to be "catholic". Shamans are spiritual and recognize a good deal of Truth (more than most modern Westerners). However, their worldview and their practice is quite contrary to the catholic worldview and practice. Specifically, they communicate with spirits, something that Catholics are forbidden to do.
You may want to read the essay at on "Shamanic Practice and the Priesthood". This clarifies the difference. You will find it here: